Disputed tribal council members take over administration building

Photo: Marcos Valentin | WPRI-TV

CHARLESTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) – Narragansett Indians who were elected to the tribal council months ago say they took control of the tribe’s administration building this morning, and while a crowd swelled nearby, a tribal leader said it was “a peaceful transition.”

Bella Noka, the tribal election committee chairperson, said in a perfect world the transition would’ve happened after the new council was elected in July. But Matthew Thomas, who was impeached as chief by the council in October, called its members “imposters” and according to an active federal lawsuit, did not cooperate with the change of power.

“We were trying to follow the protocol,” Noka said. “We didn’t want to be confrontational. And we wanted to practice diplomacy. But it didn’t happen. We had to take action.”

Noka said the tribe hired retired police officers to provide security as the locks inside and outside the building were changed.

Noka said the first step for the new council will be to analyze the tribe’s finances.

Thomas has not returned requests for comment.

Medicine Man John Brown, who disputed the election of the new council and claimed the impeachment was invalid, has not returned requests for comment.

After the impeachment, Thomas called for the “imposter tribal council to end their political charade.”

“It is quite disheartening to see this very small group of dissident members defying their own tribal court system in a misguided attempt to seize power from the lawfully constituted tribal government,” Thomas said at the time.

Before voting to impeach Thomas on Oct. 1, the council made several claims, including that Thomas’s residency disqualified him to be chief.

Chief Sachem Thomas got a Florida driver's license in March.
Chief Sachem Thomas got a Florida driver’s license in March.

Thomas had been Chief Sachem of the Charlestown-based tribe for nearly two decades, but the already bubbling tension between the two factions of the tribe began to boil over when it was revealed Thomas is a legal resident of Florida.

Thomas brushed aside the residency issue, calling it “irrelevant,” and adding that U.S. boundaries have nothing to do with the tribe, which is a sovereign nation.

His opponents claimed tribal election rules state the chief must live in Rhode Island or within a 50-mile radius.

Documents obtained by Target 12 from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles indicated Thomas got a Florida driver’s license on March 10, 2015, and at the same time registered to vote in that state.

The two factions of the tribe have been fighting for control for years and the July election was the second time voting results were disputed by the existing administration that was led by Thomas and Brown.

Last December, members of the council who were elected in June 2014 were informed in emails that their “appointment to Tribal Council has concluded due to the invalidation of the 2014 Tribal Election.”

As first reported by Target 12, that move effectively kicked the newly elected leaders off the nine-member council and set the stage for the second disputed election last July.

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau